A federal appeals court judge underwent an incredibly rare ethics investigation, and came out the other side unscathed. After initially clearing Fifth Circuit Judge Edith Jones of any misconduct in August, the judicial counsel at the District of Columbia Court of Appeals rejected an appeal to that ruling on Wednesday.
Once upon a time Houston's own Jones was known for making the Supreme Court nominee shortlist under both George H.W Bush and George W. Bush. But Jones is probably better known these days for being one of the most conservative justices on a notoriously conservative court.
Back in February 2013, Jones either made a perfectly acceptable little speech on the death penalty at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law or made some of the most racist and bigoted public remarks ever to come out of a federal judge's mouth in modern times, depending on whose version of the story you believe. Her remarks, as interpreted by five law students and one professor in the audience that day, were enough for a collection of civil rights experts and legal ethicists to file a complaint with the Fifth Circuit. Attached to the complaint were eight affidavits including, six from people who actually attended Jones' speech.
The complaint that rose out of that 45-minute speech and question and answer session, as reported in the initial complaint that was filed with the Fifth Circuit in June 2013, was serious enough that then-Chief Justice Carl Stewart passed the whole thing off, requesting that it be reviewed by the Judicial Committee of the D.C. Court of Appeals. And then U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts got involved, ordering the review of Jones.
The complaint, filed by 13 individuals and civil liberties groups, alleged that Jones made racially-charged statements during her law school speech that bad enough to reach the level of judicial misconduct. Basically:
Certain "racial groups like African Americans and Hispanics are predisposed to crime," are "'prone' to commit acts of violence," and get involved in more violent and "heinous" crimes than people of other ethnicities; Mexican Nationals would prefer to be on death row in the United States rather than serving prison terms in Mexico; Defendants' claims of racism, innocence, arbitrariness, and violations of international law and treaties are really nothing more than "red herrings" used by opponents of capital punishment; Claims of "mental retardation" by capital defendants are also red herrings, and the fact such persons were convicted of a capital crime is in itself sufficient to prove they are not in fact "mentally retarded"; and the imposition of a death sentence provides a positive service to capital- case defendants because the defendants are likely to make peace with God only in the moment before their imminent execution.
Plus, the complaint called Jones out on the infamous exchange she had with fellow-Fifth Circuit Judge J. Dennis back in 2011 when Jones was chief justice of the court. During a hearing on a criminal drug conviction, Jones got irritated that Dennis, one of few liberal justices on the court, asking questions. Specifically:
Jones: Judge Dennis!
Dennis: Can I, can I, can I ask a question? Jones: You have monopolized, uh, uh, seven minutes....
Dennis: Well, I'm way behind on asking questions in this court. I have been quiet a lot of times, and I am involved in this case....
Jones slams her hand down on the table (loudly), stands halfway up out of her chair, and points toward the door.
Jones: Would you like to leave?
Dennis: Pardon? What did you say?
Jones: I want you to shut up long enough for me to suggest that perhaps....
Dennis: Don't tell me to shut up....
Jones: ... you should give some other judge a chance to ask a question ...
The verbal scrapping between Dennis and Jones was recorded (because it was in court), but the Pennsylvania speech, somehow, was not. That audio proof, or the lack thereof, ended up being key when the D.C. counsel reviewed the complaint. In her response Jones denied the allegations and submitted her notes, her own memories of what the speech was like and various news clippings, blog posts and legal documents backing up her claim that she didn't say such things. Then the special counsel rounded up more information backing up her claims, according to the judicial counsel opinion. Plus they couldn't find a recording of the speech.
Last August, more than a year after the complaint was filed the judicial counsel dismissed the complaint against Jones. The counsel also let her off the hook on the courtroom spat with Dennis because she apologized for it in the next court hearing.
For those who like lessons at the end of stories here are a few:
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1. If you're a federal judge, be sure and keep your own personal opinions on matters personal.
2. If you do happen to decide to let those personal thoughts fly, make sure absolutely nobody in this day and age of compulsive documentation records or films you doing so. (The fact that the counsel never found anything indicating Jones said such things either means she didn't say them or they really cherry picked who they talked to.)
3. If you are going to go after a federal judge alleging judicial misconduct, you'd best be like Nixon and record everything.
4. Also, an apology may not get you anywhere, but it will totally do for mending fences as far as the D.C. circuit goes.